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Oregon Opal

To most gem connoisseurs, opal means Australia and almost no place else. The few that know of American’s role as an opal producer may have seen some of the beautiful black opals from Virgin Valley, Nevada, that collectors regard as highly as stones from Lightning Ridge, Australia.

Yet the fact that Oregon has for the past few years rivaled Nevada as an opal producer is still pretty much of a secret, even in cognoscenti circles. And it isn’t because the state is a newcomer to the opal scene. Opal mining was first reported there nearly a century ago and has been going on, albeit sporadically, ever since.
Evidently, prior production was so slim that no one took Oregon seriously—no matter how highly they regarded specimen stones. Mention isn’t even made of the state as an opal source in the 1987 edition of the Color Encyclopedia of Gemstones by Joel Arem, a major gem locality reference work.

Nonetheless, Oregon opal is finally starting to attract the attention of collectors.

Oregon opal has already captured a small but devout following among gem and mineral buffs with a taste for lapidary art. Impressive carvings by Kevin Lane Smith almost singlehandedly gained the first serious recognition for Oregon opal by highlighting both the gemological and aesthetic diversity of this material. The trouble was that Smith’s immense talent nearly overshadowed the importance of the material on which his reputation stood. It was as if a paint maker had hired a brilliant unknown by the name of Pablo Picasso to help it make a name for itself and the unknown made a bigger name for himself than the company.

Before he became as famous as he is today, Smith devoted his life to popularizing Oregon opal. In 1987, he spent one half of his working life cutting it, the other half mining it at Opal Butte in northeastern Oregon’s Blue Mountain Range. Gradually, he focused more on cutting, less on mining. That left Dale Huett, the mine’s owner, to run things by himself until 1992 when he had to hire people to help him dig for geodes, the large nodules of stone whose cavities are sometimes lined with crystals or mineral material), in which the opal is found.

Like all opal deposits, Opal Butte produces a certain percentage of material that is prone to cracking (opal dealers call it “crazing”) as a result of dehydration. “For the most part, it is our yellows, oranges and reds that are the troublemakers,” says Huett. To ferret out unstable from stable material, some crazing-prone pieces of cuttable opal are cured by heating at 150 degrees Farenheit for eight hours. A decrease in the number of crackups has Huett optimistic that the percentage of unstable material is declining as he digs deeper into his mountain deposit.

When Huett first started mining at Opal Butte , which is at an elevation of 4,700 feet, in 1987, digging stretched from late spring to early fall when the area is free of snow. But as sorting, selling and marketing have taken a bigger bite of his time, Huett has had to cut back mining to two months a year, which is still ample time to accumulate the new inventory he needs. But it might not be if Oregon Opal becomes a U.S. gemstone staple like Arizona peridot.

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Oregon Opal